Literature: The World According to Garp

John Irvingís fourth novel, published in 1978, The World According to Garp was a bestseller for several years. The book was also a finalist for the National Book Awards for Fiction in 1979 and its first paperback edition won the Award the following year. Written in the style of a biography, it chronicles the quirky life and times of author, husband, and father T.S. Garp from his unusual conception to his tragic early death.

A movie adaptation directed by George Roy Hill and starring Robin Williams was theatrically released in 1982 with the screenplay written by Steve Tesich.


  • Asexual: Jenny Fields, who finds the very concept of sexual attraction unspeakably vile.
  • Author Appeal: Sex, bears, and wrestling.
  • Author Avatar: Garp for Irving.
    • Irving's CV strongly resembles that of Garp. An illegitimate child, he grew up at a prestigious prep school where he wrestled and ran track. After school, he toured Austria. As an adult, he worked as a wrestling coach and a novelist and had two sons although both are alive. Young Irving also bears a strong physical resemblance to the fictional Garp.
    • Most of the books written by Garp echo Irving's previous novels. Procrastination is Irving's Setting Free the Bears; The Second Wind of the Cuckold is similar to The 158-Pound Marriage. Following this pattern, Garp's third novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, is similarly titled to The World According to Garp (Irving's real third novel, The Water Method Man, bears no resemblance to Bensenhaver) The book Garp is planning to write just prior to his murder contains elements of Irving's novel The Hotel New Hampshire, which was published after Garp.
  • Auto Erotica : Ends in the most tragic way, including Groin Attack wherein one party has his penis bitten off, and Eye Scream where Garp's son loses an eye to the gearshift. Ouch.
  • Betty and Veronica: Teen Garp is drawn to both dark, serious Helen and bubbly blonde Cushie.
  • Big Fancy House: Garp ends up owning both Jenny Fields's impressive childhood home on Dog's Head Harbor and the Steering family home at Steering Academy.
  • Boarding School / One-Gender School : The prep school where Garp is allowed to attend as the son of a staff member. A fictional version of Irving's own prep school, Exeter.
  • Contrived Coincidence: When The World According to Garp was written with the protagonist's biological father a comatose but aroused injured Air Force gunner in World War II, Irving was unaware that his own biological father had been in the military.
  • Creator Breakdown: In-Universe. Garp's third novel, The World According to Bensenhaver into which he projects all his grief over Walt's death.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Inverted. Though Jenny Fields asks her son not to name a child after her while she's still living, the Garps name their first daughter Jenny. Soon after her birth, Baby Jenny becomes a Dead Guy Junior for real after the elder Jenny is murdered. Later in life, Jenny Garp bears out the name by becoming a doctor, echoing Jenny Fields' career as a nurse.
  • Disguised in Drag: Garp must do this to attend his mother's women-only memorial service.
  • Dirty Old Woman: "Mrs Ralph." Garp is tempted.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male : Jenny's conception of Garp. Most definitely not okay, as Garp's father was a bed-bound patient in the hospital where she worked. Later, when Jenny publishes a tell-all autobiography, she matter-of-factly admits to the rape, which is largely interpreted as a highly empowering feminist act that inspires many women to "do a Jenny Fields" of their own.
    • The Film of the Book at least pauses to call the act rape, and Dean Bodgers expresses horror over it.
  • Elective Mute : Of an extreme kind: The Ellen Jamesians are a group of radical feminists who cut out their tongues in support of a young rape victim.
  • Embarrassing Nickname : Cushion and Pooh.
  • invokedFatal Method Acting: Jenny is assassinated while giving a speech. Her last words were "Some of you know who I am."
  • Hot for Teacher: Michael Milton and Harrison Fletcher both fall for Helen Garp.
    • "Mrs. Ralph" gets her share once she earns tenure.
  • Infant Immortality : Inverted.
  • Known Only By Initials: Garp's first name is T.S., said by his mother to stand for "Technical Sergeant" (the rank of his father). Everyone just calls him "Garp."
    • In the movie, a college-aged Garp flirts with girls by telling them the initials stand for "terribly sexy."
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Garp grows up to be a writer.
  • Out with a Bang: Poor Ernie Holms dies while masturbating. Thoughtful Dean Bodgers pulls up his pants and hides the porn before calling the paramedics.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: A running theme in the book.
  • Show Within a Show: Or, in this case, a story within a story. Some of Garp's early stories are included as part of the text, to show his development as a writer.
  • Straw Feminist: Zig Zag. Irving explores feminism from a man's perspective, between Jenny's role as an "icon" to the Ellen Jamesians to his friendship with transsexual Roberta Muldoon.
  • Transsexual: A former tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles, Roberta Muldoon becomes a close friend to the Garp family and a fervent supporter/bodyguard for Garp's mother Jenny.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Both Garp and his wife.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Jenny, who is largely portrayed as a strong, practical, pragmatic woman who can always be counted to take up the right side of any issue, even if her position is unpopular, is held completely unaccountable for the rape of Garp's dying father. The rape is treated as an inspirational act at best, and a punchline at worst. In a book where one of the running motifs is the bad decisions of basically good people, where motivations and consequences are usually thoroughly explored, the omission is rather glaring.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: An amazingly thorough one follows almost every surviving character to the ends of their lives.
  • Write Who You Know: John Irvingís mother Frances Winslow had not been married at the time of the authorís conception could be the basis of T. S. Garp being an illegitimate child.